Two Ways to Fly Old Glory
As I walk my Manahawkin neighborhood, the same streets I walked to trick or treat as a 12-year-old over 50 years ago, I pass homes and cars displaying the Red, White and Blue. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about two ways people fly our flag.
The first is my father’s way. His way is with pride and tenderness, kind of the way you show photos of your children when you are far from home. The way a locket is worn when it contains a soft curl left by a loved one. He served in World War II in Papua New Guinea, loading bombs and fixing stubborn jeeps. The bombs fell on him, too. He yearned for Surf City, N.J., and the bay. But he was a protector and once told the college girl me that he would come anywhere to get me if I needed him. I retorted, “What, in a helicopter?”
When he raised his flag, he watched to make sure it was smooth, and lit at night, and burnt with honor when tired and ragged. He loved the symbol of his country, but also loved his fellow man. When he returned from overseas he joined the first aid squad, the PTA and served on the school board for many years. He picketed with his carpenters union for higher fair pay and better working conditions. He loved his American Legion buddies and cooked hot dogs and hamburgers at each picnic. These were the duties and privileges he had fought for. The patriotic expressions of how he loved his country symbolized by this flag.
The second way I see the flag flying – and of course, this is only my perception – is as a threat, a taunt. I would like to understand this way of displaying the flag. A pickup truck and maybe a Jeep ride past my house with a very large flag smacking in the wind. This reminds me of sports, of riding through the town next door with your high school’s colors and symbols boldly flying from your vehicle as if to say, “My school is better than yours and we’re going to smash you at Saturday’s game.” It’s almost “I dare you to come after me.”
If one of these cars was following me closely on a local road, I would feel threatened. I’m not sure why exactly. When I mentioned these cars with giant flags to a woman I know, her answer was “They’re being patriotic.” I didn’t understand. I thought my father serving with the first aid squad and PTA was patriotic; this huge flag flashing by feels more like the threat.
In my neighborhood some houses fly three or four flags. Maybe the number of flags is symbolic for the residents. I would understand that need. I can speculate on their reasons and support their right to fly as many as they like. But the profusion seems to diminish the spectacle of 4th of July, when I stood watching the Tuckerton parade as a 5-year-old, carefully dressed in red, white and blue with matching socks.
I wonder if those flag flyers are as much in awe of James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul and countless others as I am. They were real people, with problems and families, aches and pains, tired feet and crying children, who worked together, and argued, to create and mold a new country with a unique Constitution symbolized by the flag we fly, which has gone through changes like the Constitution it represents.
I’m old now and fond of telling my children I only have 20 years left so I better get to work doing what I think is important. Wondering about the flag my father loved is one of those things. I cringe to see it used as a “team mascot” and a weapon of “in your face” intimidation against those it should protect. I long to see it flown the way my father did, with patriotism based on love.
Cynthia Inman Graham lives in Manahawkin.